Robotic Caregiving Assistance Becoming a Reality

by Kathy Wechsler on Wed, 2009-07-01 11:27
Charles E. Dyer, Jr., of Georgia, interacts with EL-E, an assistive robot created in Georgia Tech's Healthcare Robotics Lab.

The future is bright at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Healthcare Robotics Lab in Atlanta.

Georgia Tech professor and health care robotics researcher Charles Kemp and his team of researchers are working on a project that one day will change the lives of people with disabilities by allowing them greater independence — an assistive robot.

The first version of their robot assistant, EL-E, received its name because its single arm resembles the trunk of an elephant. Measuring 5 feet 7 inches tall, the skinny robot is mainly metal and gets its power from motorcycle batteries.

Robotics progress

By casting a green spot on the table with a laser pointer, Charles Dyer tells the robot, EL-E, where to set the cordless phone it has retrieved.

Researchers worked with 38 patients from the MDA/ALS Center at the Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta, to learn the types of robot assistance that would be most valuable to people with progressive paralysis. Georgia Tech also conducted several studies at the Healthcare Robotics Lab, where they had the opportunity to watch people interact with EL-E and better understand the challenges.

Charles H. Dyer Jr. of Jonesboro, Ga., who received an ALS diagnosis in 2003, was involved in two of the hands-on studies. Dyer, 66, wanted to participate because he frequently drops things and has to rely on his wife, Saralyn, to pick them up.

During both studies, Dyer spent several hours working with EL-E, whose built-in system of cameras and sensors enable it to retrieve items and place them in desired locations by following a laser pointer. Dyer also had EL-E open doors, drawers and cabinets by tugging on a red cloth with its arm.

Dyer discussed challenges and needed improvements with the researchers, but overall was impressed by EL-E. “It’s truly amazing what the robot can do to help with daily problems,” he says. “You have to see it perform to believe what it can do.”

EL-E is very accurate when selecting an object sitting all by itself, but still has trouble picking out a particular object from a cluttered area, says Kemp. Since there’s only one version, it only has been tested in a laboratory setting, but Kemp’s goal for 2009 is to build a version that can be tested in a home setting.

The future

Kemp and the Georgia Tech team are developing a robot with two arms that they expect will be able to do some things that the one-armed robot can’t, such as open a pill bottle and lift more weight.

EL-E’s arm has very stiff joints, like a traditional factory robot. When people interact with EL-E, it can sense that they’re making contact but is unable to smoothly adapt to their touch. On the other hand, the two-armed robot has flexible joints that act like springs. This enables its arms to be pushed in a desired direction and smoothly respond to contact with people and the world.

Kemp hopes future robots will be able to help with communication and even transferring, such as from a bed to a wheelchair.

When assistive robots do become widely available, Kemp suspects they won’t be exactly like EL-E but a close relative. Kemp expects them to be smarter and more capable of interacting with others.

“I will be disappointed if within the next 10 years, we don’t see this type of technology helping people in homes,” he says. “My hope is that it would be much sooner than that.”

Kemp estimates that EL-E (which is not for sale) currently costs about as much as a “luxury automobile,” but he expects the price to drop if it reaches production and becomes more successful in the marketplace. He hopes prices ultimately will be comparable to “a nice power wheelchair.”

“I’m confident that robots are going to be able to help provide care, and hopefully make it so a caregiver does not have to be around all the time,” he says. “We believe in this technology, and in the long term, it can really make a difference in people’s lives.”

Kemp welcomes suggestions for other types of assistance the robot should offer. Contact Georgia Tech’s Healthcare Robotics Lab at hrl@lists.gatech.edu or visit www.healthcare-robotics.com for more information.

See a video of EL-E in action
Kathy Wechsler
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